It's not just Syria: Russia has been quietly building power throughout the Middle East – and challenging America’s superpower status.
- By Emile SimpsonEmile Simpson is a research fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He was formerly a British Army officer.
In his masterful account Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman defines strategy as “the art of creating power.” This is a useful lens through which to consider one of this year’s key geopolitical trends: Russia’s return to the Middle East.
Apart from its close ties to the Syrian regime, which date back to the 1970s, Moscow has had no substantial role in the Middle East since 1972, when President Anwar Sadat kicked Soviet advisors out of Egypt.
Why return now? At a general level, it’s clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to challenge the notion of a U.S.-led world order and encourage the return to a multipolar one, though there are certain self-imposed constraints on his ambitions. Although he has intervened in Georgia and Ukraine, he doesn’t seem willing to start a wider war by attacking any Eastern European states that are already members of NATO. In the Middle East, however, Putin has a theater to undermine Western influence, and to create power for himself, without the risk of triggering a war with the West.
As any demagogue knows, one way to create power out of nothing is to find a division and then exploit it. In the Middle East, the fundamental division Russia has exploited is the one between the West’s aversion to Islamists, on the one hand, and human rights abuses on the other. The conflict between these aims often produces equivocation in Western foreign policy. It also opens up political space where Russia can operate by investing in repression and discounting democracy.
Moscow unequivocally supports the current authoritarian regimes in Damascus, Cairo, and Tobruk, which it portrays as bulwarks against the spread of radical Islam. In Egypt, Putin has consistently backed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s actions against the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, in the face of widespread evidence of repressive tactics by his military government. Since 2013, Russia has stepped in to provide arms to the Egyptian government, exploiting U.S. reluctance to provide military hardware that could be used for domestic political repression. Although Egypt continues to depend on much greater levels of financial support from Washington than from Moscow, this action exemplifies Russia’s strategy for exploiting any seam between the United States and its regional allies when Washington equivocates between security and human rights.
We see the same thing in Libya and Syria, where Russia does not contend with an established U.S. partner. In Syria, despite human rights atrocities by the Syrian government that have attracted Western scorn, the West has not been able to explain how getting rid of Bashar al-Assad’s regime would improve the country’s security, since that could lead to a rise in Islamist anarchy. Putin has exploited this gap by unreservedly backing Assad, leaving the West arguing for a gradual “transition” away from the Syrian president. And that further boosts the influence of Russia and Iran, the only countries with the leverage to initiate any such transition.
As for Libya, the United States is invested in the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, based out of Tripoli, which seeks to unify a divided country. The problem is that the separatist government in Tobruk in eastern Libya, which is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, has not agreed to this merger.
Sensing an opportunity to get between the United States and two traditional allies (Egypt and the UAE), while nominally supporting the official U.N. process, Russia has funneled arms, likely via Serbia and Belarus, to the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who supports the Tobruk government. And following Haftar’s successful takeover of the oil terminals in Libya’s Sirte basin over the last two months, and his hard line against Islamist groups in Benghazi, the West currently appears to have accepted the reality — and, to an extent, the necessity — of his power and, by extension, Russia’s influence in Libya.
Much the same could be said about Putin’s surprise diplomatic volte-face toward Turkey. Again sensing an opportunity to chip away at the NATO alliance, after the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July, Putin invited the Turkish leader to Moscow. Russian sanctions imposed after the downing of a Russian fighter jet in Syria last year were lifted, and the West now has to deal with the tricky situation of a NATO member whose president’s political philosophy has more in common with Putin’s than the democratic values NATO is supposed to protect.
Though Putin has tried to insert himself into several other areas of Middle Eastern politics this year, we should not exaggerate his influence. Recall for example that the propaganda value the Russians attached to a Syria bombing raid from an Iranian base in August irritated Tehran, and the Russians were kicked off the base three days later. Likewise, Putin’s attempt to carve out a role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process this year, which appears primarily designed to challenge the United States as the key broker, is not likely to result in any breakthrough.
So is Putin a strategic mastermind or a reckless gambler? The reality is more prosaic. Yes, Russia has made diplomatic gains this year, notably in eastern Libya and Turkey, and has propped up Assad, but this has come at serious long-term economic cost to Russia.
As any demagogue knows, the only way to maintain power generated out of nothing through division is to keep stoking the flames of perpetual conflict upon which these divisions depend. But when you make a perpetual enemy out of the West, you can’t be surprised when you seem to be perpetually on the receiving end of economic sanctions and a general wariness by Western firms to invest in your country.
It’s possible that Putin believed his actions in the Middle East would give him leverage to bargain sanctions away, despite the fact that Ukrainian and Syrian sanctions are not formally linked. But it’s more realistic to assume that Putin’s encouragement of a state of perpetual conflict with the West makes a relaxation of sanctions unlikely in the near term, especially if Hillary Clinton enters the White House. If anything, Putin has boxed Russia into a position where it must increasingly orient its economy toward China, and away from the West, which gives Beijing considerable leverage over Moscow.
It’s also important to note the role of deception and bluff in Russian strategy. This is a way of generating power out of nothing, but it’s a duplicitous kind of power that in the long run destroys one’s credibility.
Take for example Russia’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Despite being on different sides of the Syrian civil war, Putin has managed to bring Riyadh into its diplomatic orbit through cooperation on oil policy, given how both Saudi-led OPEC states and Russia need substantially higher prices for government budgets to break even.
Moscow has voiced commitment to such cooperation, and the Saudis appear to have bought into this assurance — for without it, Russia could simply gobble up much of any market share conceded by a Saudi production cut. But Riyadh will almost certainly lose out in any such deal. Last month, Igor Sechin, the CEO of Russian state-controlled oil company Rosneft, said his company would not take part in any such cut, implicitly contradicting Putin.
Russia seems to want to get the Saudis to sign on to a deal Moscow has no real intention of supporting. But it’s hard to see how long Putin can trick them into doing the heavy lifting. In the short term, the official announcement of an OPEC-Russia oil production deal, which is expected to come this month, will temporarily lift prices. But in the long term, when the deal breaks down, as it must, it will erode Putin’s credibility with Riyadh and OPEC.
Gauging the success of Putin’s strategy really depends on the time frame: In 2016, Russia is up in the Middle East; in the longer term, the damage he has done to the Russian economy by breaking with the West will outweigh the value of an alliance with the likes of eastern Libya or even perhaps Turkey. Already battered by low oil prices, the Russian economy can hardly afford to be unplugged from Western capital markets and investment.
But maybe Russian international success is entirely the wrong way of thinking about what Putin gains from a strategy of perpetual conflict. Strategy might be the art of creating power, but the power the strategist is most interested in might be at home. Perpetual conflict abroad clearly helps rally popular support among Russians to keep Putin entrenched in the Kremlin, even as his country rots around him.
Photo credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images